How to Fight the Fear of Failure: Tell Yourself You Can Do Better

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Fear of failure becomes less scary when we paint a positive picture of ourselves. Image from Sanatlibiblog

One of our most feared, anxiety-inducing thoughts is the possibility of failurethe idea that despite trying our very best — minds and bodies exerted to their fullest degree — the end result is a depressing, tearsome defeat; inadequately botched, like a stratosphere-aspiring lead balloon that crashes spectacularly into the sodden earth. Failure can be followed by a gut-wrenching, dizzying sensation in which you probably feel like the world’s biggest idiot, which you’ll promptly re-affirm with a vindictive internal monologue, adding further degradation to an already humiliating situation.

Scary as it is, failure is an inevitable aspect of a well-lived life; the consequence of consistent, courageous participation, as opposed to a trembling, fearful negation of the world. To live is to fail — the trick is learning how to deal with the looming possibility of failure in a constructive, positive way. Whipping yourself with merciless, negative self-judgments doesn’t work, instead causing higher levels of stress, lower levels of self-esteem, and at its worst, depression. Even if your negative self-talk is based in truth (maybe you really are shit at sports), it does nothing to improve your chances of success, or alleviate your fear of failure.

On the other hand, positive, compassionate encouragement has proven to be an effective way to stave off failure. A study on competitive performance in the UK found improved task performance when practising positive self-talk, recording an increase in effort, greater arousal, and more positive emotion while performing the task. Even the simple trick of telling yourself that you’re doing great, or “you can do better next time” can give you a greater chance of success, and pacify your fear of failure. In this insightful study, self-talk is broken down into two distinct types.

Self-talk-process

This kind of self-talk focuses on the process. Positive examples include:

  • I’m a great writer, and this article is shaping up nicely.
  • I’m enjoying the challenge of reading this philosophy book.
  • To finish this marathon, I just need to keep putting one foot in the front of the other.

These simple acts of self-encouragement are a form of energy-rich fuel that preserve your forward momentum. They’re the loving, reassuring parent who believes in you. They can be the difference between gritting your teeth and moving forward with hope, or giving in to the intense desire to quit. People who regularly display this kind of optimism have been found to have a better quality of life.

Compare these with examples of negative self-talk-process:

  • I’m writing terribly — this article is boring, derivative, and trivial.
  • I’m way too stupid to understand this philosophy book I’m reading.
  • I’m too exhausted to continue running in this marathon.

Imagine how another person would react if you had the gall to talk to them this way? Their motivation would likely be destroyed; all sense of energy vanquished in the face of such severe and unnecessary criticism. So why do we do it to ourselves? Cruel chastisement helps nobody. Encouragement is the fuel we need to keep moving forward, while easing our fear of failure.

Self-talk-outcome

This kind of self-talk focuses on the outcome or end result. Some optimistic examples would be:

  • This article is going to be informative, helpful, and entertaining.
  • When I finish this laborious philosophy book, I’ll be the wisest owl of them all.
  • I’ll feel an awesome sense of achievement when I cross the finishing line of this gruelling race.

Forging these positive and successful outcomes in our minds helps to curate valuable, motivational emotions, with negativity left by the wayside, giving us the confidence to drive forward. We feel a renewed sense of vitality, and armour-wielding courage.

Contrast this with examples of negative self-talk-outcome:

  • This article will be shallow, useless, and laughable.
  • This philosophy book is so difficult that I doubt I’d have learned anything by the time I finish it.
  • I don’t have the strength to finish this race.

This kind of negativity zaps our strength, limits our thinking, and increases our likelihood of failure. Negative self-talk can be one of our worst enemies, distorting our version of reality by overgeneralising, jumping to conclusions, or getting stuck in destructive all or nothing thinking. Our inner critic is like a malevolent self-serving politician, spinning reality into his desired form, and killing our confidence in the process. Flipping the script and telling ourselves stories that focus on positive outcomes can help to restore the balance, providing us with more joyful experiences, and improving our chances of sky-punching success.

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If we’re 100% committed to our actions and eager to perform well, positive self-talk has shown to be an effective way to achieve our goals. Incorporating the habit into our daily routine can be challenging — one of the toughest things about revising your negative inner monologue is catching yourself in the act. Our minds are supersonic autobahns that host thousands of rapid thoughts — it can be hard to recognise and catch a negative thought before another comes speeding along to replace it. The wonderful process of mindfulness can help with this, enforcing speed limits on our frantic, ravaged neural pathways, and gifting us with an increased awareness of our own minds. Mindfulness meditation requires no equipment or setup, just a basic understanding of its premise, and a lot of patience.

Another proven, effective way to combat negative self-talk is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), with techniques that encourage you to challenge your own dreary, harmful narratives, replacing them with positive, healthier alternatives. CBT is considered one of the most effective methods for reducing anxiety, helping us to curtail the potent worry and negative self-talk that tends to accompany challenging tasks.

With consistent practice of optimistic self-talk, fear of failure becomes much less potent, replaced with a self-fulling prophecy of positive confidence. We can weave toxic, damaging narratives for ourselves that outline our immutable stupidity and incompetence, or compose energy-boosting stories of our unequivocal talents, obvious capability, and unmistakable worth. With persistent, practised positive self-talk, we can become the authors of our own glorious fates.

The dangers of smart drugs

1_8mMH4FLDgUAwrZFNFcGNuwPhoto by Sara Bakhshi on Unsplash

If you’re an athlete with a performance-enhancing chemical coursing through your veins, you’re considered a cheat. The entire country of Russia was banned from the Olympics back in 2015 for repeated doping scandals, and have only recently been allowed to re-enter under strict conditions. It simply isn’t deemed fair for athletes to infuse themselves with ability-boosting chemicals – what would be the point of having a competition in the first place? Unless there’s a baseline – in this case the undisturbed human body – a tournament cannot be fair from the outset.

Widen the scope from a sports competition, to the competition between humans as a whole. Our species is hierarchical in nature, there’s no doubt about that. Unfortunate circumstances and repeated awful decisions might position us at the lowest rungs of the hierarchy – drug-dependent, chaotically-minded, and living on the streets. Auspicious circumstances could place us at the other end of the scale, highly-successful with a fulfilling job and family life. If the bum discovers a fortuitous chemical that will improve his dire position, is that still considered cheating? Would doping our way to the summit of our economic hierarchy turn us into swindling tricksters, just like the Russian athletes?

“Smart” drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Modafinil, and many others are alleged to give you such an advantage. Droves of students are using them in order to excel in their studies, leaving their peers in the dust. How this affects the self-esteem of those left behind is difficult to measure, not to mention the pressure it puts on them to take the drugs themselves in order to keep up. Classical musicians, highly-respectable and almost regal in their image, are taking beta-blockers in an attempt to control their nerves, creating a dependence in the process. There’s clear similarities in the idea of instilling yourself with Dutch Courage by downing a pint of beer before a nerve-wracking event. The French Foreign Legion, the UK’s Ministry of Defence, and the Indian Air Force are all dabbling in the narcolepsy-treatment Modafinil in order to enhance their troops’ performance. The next world war might bear witness to soldiers popping a few smart pills before clambering over the top into no man’s land. In the prosperous Silicon Valley, tech employees are taking small amounts of psychedelics in order to enhance their creativity; everyone wants to be the next Steve Jobs. Idiotic parents are even hooking up their children to “brain stimulation kits” – literally electrocuting their offspring in an effort to improve them. The tyrannical Nurse Ratchett would be proud.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be the best possible version of yourself, but are smart drugs really a safe way to do so? Though not physiologically addictive like alcohol or cocaine, there’s a clear risk of psychological dependence. When you’ve had a taste of higher-level functioning and reaped the rewards – a job promotion; a better grade on an exam – the incentive to return a lowly, loser-like baseline might be lacking. A bowl of clumpy gruel isn’t quite so appealing after eating Kobe beef. Through consistent use of smart drugs, we’re raising our expectation of what our baseline performance should be. It’s hazardous territory to navigate.

There’s also obvious health concerns to consider. While the traditional smart drugs are FDA-approved, there’s a plethora of other chemicals being sold online which aren’t. Who knows how the impressionable and ambitious souls who take these substances are polluting their bodies? Even the drugs that are approved by the FDA have unclear consequences of long-term use – they simply haven’t been around long enough to know. Are you willing to risk your own health on these chemicals in order to run the rat race a little bit faster? Whatever happened to slowing down and savouring each moment? Life isn’t just about getting ahead of the competition.

It’s easy for drug companies to determine the medical side effects of a product without giving a single thought to the social implications. One only has to look at the opioid epidemic in America as an example, a chemical-compound so effective at numbing pain that it’s become a medical disaster. Could smart drugs be on the same path? Nietzsche’s Will To Power – the idea that the main driving force in humans is to reach the highest possible position in life – supports the idea. Our innate desire to climb the economic hierarchy might be made easier through the use of smart drugs, but at a health cost that nobody really understands. Until we do, it might be wise to continue living your life down in the ditches, unenhanced, as nature intended.

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